Mito is the capital of the Ibaraki Prefecture. In the 16th-century, it was one of only three cities where the Tokugawa Shogunate appointed eminent members of his heir line to protect it, hence sealing its importance in Japanese history. Ancient ruins and traditions pulsate quietly alongside modern architecture and practices in Mito today, making it an interesting expression of Japan’s progress. Here, we show you the best ways to experience the city’s past and present.
1. Kairaku-en Gardens
Built 170 years ago by the 9th Shogun, Tokugawa Naraiki, Kairaku-en Gardens ranks top on this list for its historicity and its exquisiteness. Its name, Kairaku-en is derived from a saying in the Book of Mencius, which teaches that a pleasure shared with the people is a pleasure doubled. Of the three Great Gardens of Japan, Kairaku-en is thus the only one open to both the ruling families and the public.
Covering an impressive 13 ha (32.1 acres), the garden grounds include elegant groves of bamboo and cedar, delicate wisteria trellis and azalea shrubs, and a forest of 3,000 plums that burst in a shower of red, pink and white petals in spring. Visitors can also enter the reconstructed Kobun-tei – an ornate villa where the lord’s entourage rested – to get a glimpse of the extravagance from an era long gone.
Address: 1-3-3 Tokiwa-cho, Mito, Ibaraki
Website: Kairaku-en Gardens
The Mito Kodokan was once a prestigious academy that admitted only feudal warriors and their offsprings. Starting at the age of 15, its students were rigorously versed in all manners of skills and thought. Traditional subjects were taught alongside medicine, military arts, equestrian courses, and other disciplines deemed vital to the sons of nobility.
The current Kodokan is only a fifth of its original size, and has not functioned as a school since 1872. Nevertheless, a sense of hushed awe still settles upon you as you enter the sacred halls and temple. Several of these structures, including the original main gate, have been designated national cultural properties.
Address: 1-6-29 Sannomaru, Mito, Ibaraki
3. Mito Castle Ruins
Just behind the Kodokan is the ruins of Mito Castle. Although the castle is commonly associated with the Tokugawa Clan, it in fact predates the Edo Era by nearly 400 years. Mito Castle was built originally by Baba Sukemoto, a warlord who moved to the region in the 12th-century. In the mid 16th-century, the Tokugawa wrested control of the fortress, and ruled from there until a catastrophic fire destroyed most of the buildings in 1764. Any remnants of the castle were further wiped out following a WWII air raid.
Today, visitors can still see the deep moat that guarded the castle from a land invasion. A formidable Yakuimon, or gate, marks the entrance to where the castle once stood.
Mito Castle Ruins
Address: Sannomaru, Mito, Ibaraki
4. Ibaraki Prefectural Museum of History
The Ibaraki Prefectural Museum of History is a wonderland for any history buff, with its comprehensive display of art and artifacts from the region’s vibrant past. The museum is sectioned into four areas: starting in the days of primitive foragers, the exhibits continue into the classical Middle Ages, the violent Edo era when the Tokugawa clan rose into prominence, and finally the modern era when urban Mito came into form.
The architectural diversity on the museum grounds bear further testament to Mito’s place in Japan’s history. A memorial hall, enshrined in a former Edo Era house, stands in contrast to a Western-style school building that hails from the Meiji Period.
In November, the museum’s Gingko tree garden becomes the enchanting centerpiece for its annual Gingko Festival.
Ibaraki Prefectural Museum of History
Address: 2-1-15 Midori-cho, Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture
5. Gokoku Shrine
Gokoku Shrine is a classic Shinto Shrine from the Meiji Era. It was erected in 1878, in honour of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in battle. While less extravagant than some of the other Shinto shrines, Gokoku has a central role in several high key Matsuri festivals – events honoring deities – throughout the year.
Each season brings a new allure to the shrine. Ringed by a lush forest of trees, the silent sentinels provide a picturesque backdrop to the main hall, emitting an earthy scent that permeates the wide walkways around the temple. Whether you join in the lively festivals or simply visit on a quiet afternoon, Gokoku Shrine is a treat for the senses.
Address: 1-2-1 Migawa, Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture
Website: Gokoku Shrine (in Japanese)
6. Art Tower Mito
The Art Tower Mito was commissioned in 1990 to commemorate Mito’s 100th anniversary as a city. It is a cultural complex comprising of a concert hall, a theatre, and a contemporary art gallery.
The architect, Arata Isozaki, conceived the building to reflect Mito’s blend of historical and futuristic elements. The lower levels of the complex is a traditional rectangular stone and concrete structure. In contrast, the tower spiraling above is an accordion of titanium tetrahedrons, designed to be visible from miles around. Free concerts are held occasionally by the majestic organ in the promenade. To get a sense of the Art Tower’s impressive acoustics, just listen to the organ’s deep chimes reverberating around the entrance hall.
Art Tower Mito
Address: 1-6-8 Gokencho, Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture
Website: Art Tower Mito
7. Museum of Modern Art, Ibaraki
Mito’s dedication to enriching the local art scene continues with the Museum of Modern Art. The museum has a repertoire of more than 3,900 works, featuring mainly artists from the Ibaraki Region. From traditional depictions of Japanese rural landscape, to pieces with clear European influences, the exhibitions are rotated throughout the year to showcase different facets of its collection. In keeping with its standard as a world class museum, it also carries works by Western masters, including the likes of Monet, Renoir, Courbet, and more.
Located on the banks of idyllic Lake Senba, visitors can stroll under the curtain of weeping willows before crossing the bridge to get to the Museum of Modern Art. On a balmy day, the lake is a popular spot for both lovers and waterfowls to bask in the warm sunshine.
Museum of Modern Art, Ibaraki
Address: 666-1 Senbacho, Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture
Website: Museum of Modern Art
More than just a castle town
Culture and nature coalesce in Mito to create this alluring historical city. Its past as a castle town is a constant influence on its developments into the future, while the design of its urban-scape amplifies, rather than overwhelms, the effervescent nature surrounding the buildings. From Tokyo, it is a pleasant two-hour drive along the Sumida River to Mito. Spend a few days if you can, if not, a day trip here is still highly recommended.
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